Essay about The Visual Rhetoric of Traumatic Histories

Essay about The Visual Rhetoric of Traumatic Histories

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The Visual Rhetoric of Traumatic Histories


Among the problematics that guide my understanding of the possibility of visual rhetorics are three. Each might be considered to exists within/bring together the nexus of history, images, and power. This nexus helps to form a framework for an economy of verbal and visual images that, in turn, might become the fabric of a visual rhetorics. The first is what I want to call the "enigma of unrepresentability." The second is that images become especially important for us when they can be read as "self-reflexive." Finally, the third, is the "ideological privileging" of the visual that renders its apparatus, quite literally, hard to "see." Let me briefly elaborate on each.

Images "from history," as it happens, often engage some sort of trauma. This is not a trauma "inherent" within, say, the photograph (a la Barthes), but a trauma that is part and parcel of what the photo ostensibly represents. In the instance of recent documentary films engaging the European and American Holocausts, these representations potentially exist in a context of guilt, power, and postmodern doubt. What I'm calling the "enigma of unrepresentability" is a tension that functions on at least two distinct levels within this context. On one level, in a very literal sense, there is a simple void of such "historical" images. Filmmakers like Ken Burns (The West) negotiate this tension by continually recirculating images, reinventing the same image or image fragment with each new narrative context. On another, albeit less material, level the very subject matter of such films has been deemed by many as simply unrepresentable. That is, each Holocaust is viewed as so utterly horrendous, so irrecoverably Other, so outside th...


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...or critique.

Important questions include How do viewers potentially recontextualize or reinscribe nationalism in images from traumatic histories? How does a culture come to terms with, or fail to come to terms with such traumatic histories? To explore the dynamics of such representations is to participate in a shift in our thinking from the notion of "visual cultures" to one of "visual rhetorics" that looks specifically at the "rhetorical economy" crafted between verbal and visual images in popular culture. At the heart of this project is the link between image and ideology, a link so overdetermined that it becomes elusive. Visual rhetorics will focus on the "unlinking" and "re-linking" of ideologies to images. Films delving into the realm of history, power, and image gain their very meaning from such linkages and offer an opportunity to explore visual rhetorics.

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